Stormzy will tell you himself that this debut record was a long time coming. Since gaining recognition as best grime act in the 2014 MOBO awards, he’s been a bit aloof, releasing only singles, mixtapes and music videos. The air gets cleared quickly on Gang Signs & Prayer as each of the first three tracks hit hard and emphasize—convincingly—that there’s nothing to worry about—Stormzy is clocked in a ready to go. He also quickly convinces us that he’s not one dimensional with a gospel number and later features offered by Kehlani and Nao. Perhaps the album is a bit of a mixed bag and perhaps a few too many tunes gush with excess, but this record showcases a dynamic songwriter who commands each and every minute with his striking personality.
“First Things First,” “Cold” and “Bad Boys” are for the haters and the doubters. After dramatic, stormy sound effects, Stormzy’s voice comes in over the sluggish, subdued beat with words about how he’s been out of the studio for a minute, but he’s nonetheless one of the best in the game. It’s impressive how Stormzy conjures such an intense impact without an overbearing beat. Even though “Cold” follows with a bit more activity—in the form of icy, circulating synths and bouncing electronic horns—Stormzy’s passionate, blistering flow remains the centerpiece. “Bad Boys” finishes off the banging trilogy with a return to a slow tempo, this time with a bit of smoldering, dark church tones from organ and choral vocals. We also get our first real taste of singing here in the autotune/reggae hook. The first leg of the album flies by with hard-hitting, quick material, silencing any doubt in Stormzy’s conviction.
“Blinded By Your Grace Pt. 1” beckons in a bit of a change of pace in the record. Even though the more heartfelt tunes are broken up by high intensity singles “Big For Your Boots” and “Mr. Skeng,” tracks four through ten are much more contained then the ravenous beginning. First Stormzy sings with a few backup voices over soulful chords. Then, on “Velvet/Jenny Francis,” Stormzy takes an awesome second look at the intro track from Nao’s For All We Know from last year. Chipmunked reinterpretations of Nao’s already high voice complement Stormzy’s slow flow, before another chorus from Nao really blows everything out for a rousing finale. “Cigarettes and Cush” operates similarly with Kehlani offering some heartfelt words beside another touching pair of verses from Stormzy. A second look at “Blinded By Your Grace” notches up the gushiness once again for the climax of the album with seemingly every gospel singer on the planet in tow. The last five tunes on the record sort of peter out into the ending, but “100 Bags” and “Shut Up” are worthy highlights.
Stormzy’s lyrics aren’t all fun and games. Take this sweet as hell refrain from “Velvet” for example: “But loving you is easier, the simplest/Running through the world you’re my princess girl/I grow fonder, girl I grow fonder/I grow fonder, girl I grow fonder.” Still, he’s not one to aim for an extensive narrative or complex metaphors and his greatest attribute is likely his personality and sense of humor. Between trying to tell older rappers to give him the throne and young guns to shit the fuck up, Stormzy shouts out the one and only Adele: “Try tell me I’m way too big to rebel?/Nah, man, you’re never too big to rebel/I was in the O2 singing my lungs out/Rudeboy, you’re never too big for Adele.” Stormzy also hilariously mentions twitter beef at every turn: “Man try say he’s better than me/Tell my man shut up/Mention my name in your tweets/Oi rudeboy, shut up.” Of course, there are some dull offerings like the somewhat lacking rhyme scheme on “Cigarettes and Cush:” “Cause I fucked up badly/All I did was push/Now there’s no more weed/No more cush,” but the album is fun and the lyrics never take away from the experience.
Sonically, as mentioned, Stormzy’s voice is the soul purveyor of impact, but the record is also notable for its masterful switches between traditional grimey electronics to more pop sensibilities and gospelly, chipmunk hip hop. Combined with Stormzy’s infectious personality and solid feature list, the record is a fantastic debut with many different songwriting skills on display. Perhaps more focus on a narrative or one particular aesthetic could make a follow-up shine a bit more, but Gang Sings and Prayer is clearly one of the best debuts of the year.